Opening the Channels for 'The Sex Talk' With Your Teenager
Teenagers really want guidance from their parents about sex and sexuality," says pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Johnson. "Sex education gives kids fantastic knowledge, but it doesn't necessarily help them when it comes to their own personal decision-making about whether or not to have sex. That's where parents come in..."
As the Chair of the Section on Adolescent Health of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a mother of two young teenagers, Dr. Johnson knows more than most about American teenagers. Below, she discusses the role that parents can play in supporting and guiding children during the years of their budding sexuality.
Why don't parents talk with their kids about sex more often?
Most parents are just not comfortable with it, even now. The parents are made aware that there's going to be a sex education class in their kid's school, and some schools require the parents to sign a permission slip for their kids to participate in the class...but there's no concerted effort to help the parents teach their kids about sex and sexuality.
Do parents generally know what kind of sexual behavior their kids are involved in?
Most of the time it turns out that parents already suspect if their kids are sexually active. Parents notice things. They notice stains on underwear, for example. But a lot of parents don't know how to raise the subject. The best time to talk about when it's right to have sex, I think, is when a child is in the early teen years. Pre-teens think sex is yucky. Some kids start having sex in their mid-teen years. If parents haven't given their children guidance by then, it may be too late to impact behavior.
Personally, I think parents need to send two clear messages to their kids. First, they need to tell them when, in their opinion, it's appropriate for a young person to have sex. Second, if their teenager does decide to have sex, I think it's vital that parents express how important it is to protect themselves, and their partners, from pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and emotional hurt.
But some parents are just very uncomfortable talking with their kids about sexuality. I had a mother bring her daughter in for a physical exam. As I was going into the room to see her daughter she handed me a note that said, "Please get Mary on the pill."
Can you predict which parents will have a tough time talking about sex with their kids?
I think that parents' communication with their kids about sexuality to a considerable extent reflects their larger relationship with their kids.
The parents who are okay talking with their kids about sex are also going to be okay talking with their kids about other tough topics. It may be, for example, how to manage a fight with a friend at school, or how to get along with a difficult teacher. It goes back to the principle of open communication.
What about parents who are very categorical about what is right and wrong? Does this sort of approach work with teenagers when talking about sex?
Parents sometimes have very clear views of what's right and what's wrong. And when that is expressed to the kids, it can actually be very helpful to them. They want to have guidance and they want to have standards and they want someone to tell them, "I think this is right. I think this is wrong."
But I think it's important to explain the rationale so that the adolescent can then think it through on his own and decide, "Yeah, you know, that makes sense to me," or, "No, it doesn't."
So acknowledging that the teenager has a valid opinion is important.
Absolutely. One of the most important things parents can do is to ask their kids their opinions about things and to listen to them. Teenagers are deciding what right and wrong is, and they're testing things a little bit. They'll think over their parents' ideas, and in most cases, they actually accept their parents' standards of what's right and what's wrong, but they have to have the right to make those decisions.
That's why parenting an adolescent is so tricky, because a lot of parents don't realize that for the adolescent to grow up in a healthy manner, their relationship with their adolescent has to change. By the time that child turns 21, the relationship should be closer to that of an adult than a child. The beginning of that gradual separation is adolescence.
If parents don't know what their teenagers are doing, and aren't willing to talk with them, how can they make sure that they're getting good information about sex?
I recommend that the parent go to the library or to the health section in their favorite bookstore and look at a few of the books that are designed to teach teenagers about their bodies. There are some really great ones out there. Some are just about sex, and some are about your changing body, which is the approach I choose to take, because changes in your sex organs are only part of what happens in puberty.
Then parents can just leave the books around the house. Or point them out to the kid and say, "Here, I've got these books for you. You might want to look at them sometime." And then sometime, if the parent wants to, they can say, "Well, did you get a chance to look at those books, and did it tell you anything new?" or, "What are you learning in school?" Parents can do that even without the books. They can simply ask their kids what they have been taught at school about sex or whatever the parent is concerned about.
Then good communication also depends on time spent with the kids?
Yes, and one of my big concerns, both for my kids and for the generation of kids who are growing up now, is the issue of latchkey kids. It's definitely the after-school hours when kids who are unsupervised are likely to, quote, "get into trouble." Statistically, those after school hours are when a lot of the teen risk behavior takes place. So I would urge parents to find organized after school activities for their children to be involved with if they themselves can't be on hand.
What does a teenager need from a parent after school?
Availability. And that doesn't mean playing with them or even necessarily doing things with them. It means being there, providing supervision, and being available, both physically and emotionally. If I'm home when my daughter gets home at 4:15, she generally doesn't feel like talking. But she's always happy to have me make a snack! She knows I'm there, and that she can come up to me and ask me a question, or talk about her day, or whatever it may be.
And I think that parental availability is probably a big issue for parents right now.
Do you think parents are often too distracted by work when they're home?
Well I've noticed in myself how much emotional energy I use up at work. The time you spend when you're washing dishes worrying about how to prepare for tomorrow's meeting or what happened at today's meeting -- that eats up a lot of your emotional availability at home. So when you're home, you're not really home.
So do you have any practical advice for those parents who would like to talk more openly with their kids?
Well, another mother shared a bit of common wisdom with me years ago. She told me that time in the car with your kids is time well spent. And I've got to say, it works for me and my kids. Teenagers talk much more easily about things when they're in the car with you, because they're not looking at you face to face. Or when you're hanging out with them somewhere away from home, somehow it's not as intense. It takes a little bit of the pressure off.